Werner Herzog's documentary Into the Abyss begins with a prologue spotlighting death row chaplain Richard Lopez. Mr. Lopez's job is a difficult one: he provides spiritual counseling and comfort to condemned prisoners as they prepare to face execution. If the prisoners consent, Lopez will stand by their feet and hold their ankle as the lethal injection is being administered. He continues holding them until they are pronounced dead. It's a tender act of kindness that surely provides at least some measure of comfort to the inmates, but it certainly takes a toll on Lopez. He finds solace on the golf course, watching birds, squirrels, deer and other forms of life wander across the lush green grass. Herzog – characteristically seeking unusual anecdotes – asks Lopez to describe an encounter with a squirrel. Lopez smiles:
“I was on the golf course, driving on the cart path, and I saw two squirrels chasing each other. As I was getting closer, they were running across the cart path, so I put on my brakes. They stopped in the middle of the cart path and looked at me. I said, 'Well, how about this? If I wouldn't have stopped, I could have run over one of these squirrels.' Their life would have ended.”
Suddenly, Lopez's voice cracks, and his eyes fill with tears.
“And it reminds me of the many people I have been with during their last breath of life. And due to bad choices and mistakes in their life, their life is taken away in a moment. So... life is precious, whether it's a squirrel or a human being. I will sometimes meditate on that experience. Make a little noise, the squirrels will take off and continue their life. But I cannot do that for someone on the gurney. I cannot stop the process for them... but I wish I could.”
I was so overwhelmed by this moment that I simply had to stop the film and weep. I was affected by this man's goodness, by his sadness and by his deep respect for the beauty of life. Only a handful of later moments approach the power of that prologue, but that scene lingers over the rest of the film and informs everything we hear. Into the Abyss spotlights the ever-controversial topic of capital punishment, but the genius of Herzog's approach is that he ignores the politics of the matter and instead places on his focus on the heartbroken humanity of all involved: the criminals, the victims, the family members, the prison employees and so on. Rather than arguing the details of the point, Herzog quietly demonstrates that life has value and that taking a life comes with a high price.
Much of the documentary's first half plays as a true crime procedural, as Herzog revisits the details of a series of murders committed in 2001. The man allegedly responsible is Michael Perry, who was a teenager when he was convicted of one of the murders. When we meet him, he is 28 years old and is only eight days away from execution. Herzog revisits crime scenes, interviews surviving family members and gives us a full sense of the horrible things Michael has (probably) done. “I don't have to like you,” Herzog tells Michael, “But I respect you as a human being, and I don't believe that any human being should be executed.”
Michael is making the usual last-minute appeals, but there are no twists of fate in store for him. The execution is carried out as planned, and that knowledge adds a sobering quality to the footage of Herzog's interviews with the young man. Not everyone who appears in the film is upset about his sentence. One of the victim's family members says she is glad to have attended the execution, and admits that she felt a great burden lift from her shoulders when he was pronounced dead. She claims to be a Christian, and Herzog asks her whether Jesus would approve of the death penalty. “Probably not,” she admits, “But some people just don't deserve to live.”
The most compelling interviewee in the film is Captain Fred Allen, who was once responsible for overseeing the execution of death row inmates. He took pride in the fact that he always treated the condemned with dignity, and did his best to ensure that they were given as much comfort as possible under the circumstances. One day, after a particularly difficult execution, he felt his spirit had been crushed. He left his job, gave up his pension and vowed never to aid in the execution of another human being. No human being should ever have to do that.
Herzog has a lower-profile presence than usual in this film. He remains offscreen at all times, and his questions are soft-spoken (if not soft – he often asks people to elaborate during emotionally difficult moments). There is no rallying cry made to change the system, nor is there a big speech about the immorality of the death penalty. There is simply human emotion: grief, regret, satisfaction, anger, loneliness, depression, confusion. Into the Abyss is a difficult film to watch, but it provides us with an invaluable glimpse of America's broken soul.
Into the Abyss
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Year: 2011